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Newcomers Wait Years for Running Water as Mexico City Suburbs Struggle

Haze hangs over Mexico City at midday, March 15, 2016. Despite the heavy downpours that come each rainy season, Mexico City has long struggled with providing enough water for some 21 million people in the greater metropolitan area.

An hour's drive from the hustle and bustle of Mexico City, paved roads give way to dust, snaking up hills dotted with cornfields and wildflowers.

Carolina, 36, moved to this eastern suburb, Chimalhuacán, four years ago so her family could own land.

But at least once a week, she is stuck waiting outside her cinderblock home for a water truck to chug its slow way to her doorstep, one of tens of thousands of people living on the edges of Mexico's urban megalopolis who have no running water.

"It's because the government doesn't want to spend on us ... They don't want us," said Carolina, who declined to provide her last name.

Her plight, and those of her neighbors, shows the struggle of expanding urbanization in one of the world's biggest cities, placing a burden on government resources and leaving families stranded without basic services.

Running water a year away

People started moving to this neighborhood of Santa Maria about 20 years ago to escape higher rents closer to Mexico City, and the pace of new dwellings picked up in the past decade.

But families had to wait until 2015 to receive electricity, and running water for everyone is not expected to come until at least the end of next year.

Sewage systems are also lacking, and the streets overflow with foul-smelling water in heavy rain, leading to a risk of infection and disease.

Basic water services lacking

Cecilia Gayta, 37, a local political volunteer, is fighting for the community to get state funds to install water tanks.

She estimated that some 90,000 people live in the area and lack basic water services.

"Unfortunately, the government does not pay attention to us," Gayta told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Jacobo Espinoza Hilario, who works on water issues for the International Habitat Coalition, a nonprofit network that deals with housing issues, said part of the problem is the government not enforcing regulations for new developments, especially those on hilltops that could replenish badly depleted aquifers below.

Refilling aquifers becomes more difficult when housing is built on what were once green, unoccupied hills.

New homes add to problem

Those new homes also put pressure on the existing water and sewage resources that are already stretched thin, he said.

"I say these new settlements are doubly damaging," Espinoza Hilario said. "There should be a human right to water ... but it is difficult to comply with this right in a city that misuses its water."

Despite the heavy downpours that come each rainy season, Mexico City has long struggled with providing enough water for some 21 million people in the greater metropolitan area.

Built on the bed of lakes that were drained by the Spanish who conquered the Aztec capital, the city faces acute water shortages despite sitting in a basin that is regularly flooded.

Aquifers overused

With an irrigation infrastructure that has suffered from years of under-investment and neglect, the city relies heavily on pumping up water from underground aquifers.

While laws exist to limit drilling of new wells and prevent overuse, Espinoza Hilario said aquifers are around 300 percent overexploited, with extraction fast outpacing replenishment.

This forces the government to pipe in water from dozens of miles away to reach the city's 7,300-foot (2,225 meters) altitude, an expensive and complicated feat.

Illegal settlements

Enrique Garduño Ruiz, director of Chimalhuacán's water authority, agrees that part of the problem is illegal settlements such as the Santa Maria neighborhood, where people moved without authorization under official development plans.

The land had been used for agriculture and lacked any infrastructure. It was also the subject of dispute between two municipalities, Chimalhuacán and San Vicente Chicoloapan, and neither took responsibility until Chimalhuacán won the rights in 2010.

Since then, the water authority, called ODAPAS (the Decentralized Organization for Running Water, Sewage and Sanitation), started digging wells and installing tanks and pipes, Garduño Ruiz said.

He estimated that out of the neighborhood's population of some 12,000 families, or 60,000 people, more than half now receive running water from two installed large water tanks, with two more tanks set to become operational "soon.”

Government struggles

The city also has enough money to install one more tank next year, providing water to everyone by the end of 2017, he said.

The tanks vary in size, some holding about 300,000 liters and others as much as 650,000 liters of water.

But Garduño Ruiz said the city government still struggles with provision of services, since fewer than a third of those who get running water pay for it.

And each week brings more new arrivals flocking to areas like Santa Maria in search of cheap land and affordable living.

Rainwater collection

"Many people work for informal businesses and earn 50, 60 pesos ($2.47, $2.97) a day, which is enough for their food, not to pay for services," he said. "As a city, we can't ourselves resolve these problems of salaries and of work; it's more complicated."

He frets about the future, as Mexico City and the surrounding valley drain groundwater more quickly than it can be replaced.

Some studies show that Chimalhuacán only has a guarantee of enough water until 2050, forcing the government to consider new measures, such as rainwater collection.

"Yes, of course I'm worried," he said.